Ever since she was small, YolanDa Brown has been fascinated with music, and racing driving, and speaking different languages, and travelling. So when she grew up, the natural choice was to become a management consultant.
The 30-year-old has two master's degrees, speaks fluent Spanish and, in 2009, while she was diligently working on her PhD thesis in management science, she started to believe that maybe her childhood passion for music could be a reality. That year Brown became the first person ever to win at the Jazz category of the Mobo awards two years running. But management consultancy “was always the plan”, so she stuck with it.
“I didn't know that music was going to be a career. I used to just play for myself and I was always very shy about it and people were saying, ”you could make some money from this you know“ and I was like, ”I don't really want to,“ she exclaims in an east-London accent. ”I found music very therapeutic. To process my feelings, instead of writing in a diary, I would play my saxophone. So for me music was very personal, the idea of taking that personal thing onto a stage was strange to me. Then, one day in summer, I had the windows open and I was playing and I was very hot and sweaty and I heard applause. It was my neighbour, and he asked if I could play it again. Then I realised music was about sharing and, even though the sax doesn't have words, it's an incredibly powerful instrument and people want to share in the emotion you're expressing with it – so I shouldn't be so shy!“
Even now, Brown encounters some prejudice around her chosen career path. “Early on in my career as a saxophonist, a lot of my interviewers were like ”so you're a female...“ Her response was, ”so what?“
“There are only so many notes on a keyboard and I don't think a composition would change according to your gender.”
She then played a series of game-changing concerts, including a UK tour with The Temptations, a concert on the beach for the president of Jamaica, and a reception at The Winter Palace for the then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev.
“There was no way to plug things in, they had a string quartet to back me, and I thought, this is nice, but it's not exactly gonna rock the house!” she laughs. Instead of the lilting strings, she taught the band a reggae number, “the room changed, suddenly everyone was more relaxed and the guy on bass was putting so much effort in he broke a string.”
Eventually, she somewhat reluctantly put the PhD on hold and made an album, April Showers May Flowers, which shot straight to No1 in the UK jazz charts.
Brown's parents are Jamaican, and she grew up in Barking listening to her father's record collection, which contained “all different genres of music” including classical, rock, soul and reggae. Her parents indulged all her childhood passions, including a whole orchestra's worth of instruments, and her joining the Army Cadets and Cub Scouts (“I loved going out and shooting rifles... I loved the idea of the camping in the outdoors!”) but it wasn't until the age of 13 that she picked up the saxophone.
“I told my parents I wanted to play the saxophone and they said: ”Oh no! Here she goes again!“ but it just shows, you really need to encourage those childhood passions – because it might lead to a career”. Another of Brown's passions is encouraging young people to follow theirs. “Young people seem to be seeing the fame, but they don't understand the joy of just making music” she muses.
This week she was at the O2 Arena in support of the Spirit of London Awards, which celebrate the achievements of young Londoners, and she's also part of Plan UK, the Mayor of London's fund for young musicians. She is about to set up her own foundation for talented young musicians. She sees it as social responsibility.
“It's part and parcel of the job. When you're chasing record sales, young people look up to you, and you need their parents to approve of you so they can buy your music.” There are other aspects to being in the limelight that Brown, as a self-confessed tomboy, hasn't taken so easily to.
“I think glamming up is part of what the music industry requires. I have been to meetings where they say, 'what about this look?' and show me a picture of Grace Jones... well, I'd rather look like me. I have dresses made that I think are still appealing but quite modest. My skirts won't be getting any shorter any time soon.”
In fact, Brown is planning on spending a substantial part of next year devoid of glamour, as there's one more childhood dream she hasn't yet fulfilled. “I met Ron Dennis, the boss of the McLaren Formula 1 team, and I shot a music video in a Formula 3 car. We got talking and I'll be racing Minis next year and making a documentary about it and following my dream.”
Just like when she was a child, variety still attracts Brown. “They tour the races just like I tour my music, so one day I might be at an awards show and the next day I'll be on the track not having to do my make-up or my hair because I'll have my helmet on!” she says gleefully. But what about the PhD? “In the future I'd definitely like to finish it off,” she says. Let's hope she sticks with the sax long enough to make the next album.
YolanDa Brown's album, 'April Showers, May Flowers', is out now